By Scott Sullivan
He saddled up to the bar and gritted through rotted cuspids, bicuspids, incisors …
“Aren’t you s’posed to sidle?” asked Zeke the Barkeep.
“Buck you,” he spat through his bridge, spitting bloody Chiclets square into bullseyes of 12 dartboards. “I’m up for a ride. Whiskey.”
“You want, I got.”
“I don’t always drink risky, but when I do …”
“Ole Smoky Tennessee Caramel comin’ up.”
Some rotgut sommelier, Zeke thought to himself. Sweet s#*! for more gum shooting ammo. Nights in and out he staggers in.
“This publishing biz is a bitch,” he’d mourn manfully. “Think toothaches ache? Employees are bad, cures worse. Novocain needles through gums into soft tissue, brain; root canals: gold or porcelain crowns … nothing works.”
“Not even briefly?”
“I mean forever.”
Godly powers, Zeke thought, to attribute to a tooth doc. Bacteria never sleeps, assigning shifts when needed, ever recruiting bold, younger soldiers to pierce new portals to your nerve centers, feasting, high-fiving friends there.
“Back then,” the publishing mogul growled, “you’d tie teeth to doorknobs, your uncles yanked doors, they popped out by roots. Problem solved.”
“The old ways worked, by God. You spat blood into buckets till blood ran out, with remaining teeth bit bullets, branches, limbs, redwood trunks some bigmouths needed, till pain subsided. That or your brain adjusted. Get. Work. Done. No excuses.”
“Pay me for drinks,” Zeke commiserated, “I gotta listen to your stories, like a newspaper magnate puts up with writers who bitch they’re not paid enough. Flexibility’s undervalued.”
“Get your money’s worth,” he advised. “Writers value writing more. They’re glad for exposure, quick reaction, good badinage with readers who inspire future stories. It can come from all places. Who doesn’t love that exchange?”
“You can’t quit it?”
“Are you kidding? I write too, in addition to making their jobs possible upholding America’s free press, which I do with but a modicum of boasting, and pocketing coin doing my own accounting too. What would they do without me? Thing is, I own a chain of 10 newspapers I’m chained to. Been thrown out of bars from here to Florida.”
“You could try sidling up to them,” Zeke suggested.
“Nah. Rather threaten to seek cheaper dentists in Costa Rico or on Mexico’s resort coast this winter — granted, three months of posh and successive treatments by senoritas probing my every orifice, under palms on sun-kissed Pacific beaches, can’t help but be therapeutic. I can grouse about sticker shock in later columns. A win-win already, but …”
“Wait, there’s more?”
“Threatened or enticed, writers will back down from wage requests, instead buck at the opportunity to unchain themselves from me, run the asylum, doubtless aground by the time I’m back … if I’m back. I want to leave options open.”
“Who writes the exchange agreement between you and them?”
“My lawyer. They can’t afford one.”
“What if business booms in your absence?” Zeke asked. “They can’t be that dumb, they work for you. Ever spent summers in the tropics? Yes, they’re Americanized for the season, but you become a specimen there as your countrymen desert back to native homes and heat beats down again full force.”
“Yeah, but rates will drop and I’ll still have bucks to wash down remaining stresses,” he replied, “that I can’t wait to re-heap on myself. Plus I’ll still have enough dinero for just the top whiskeys and tequilas, spitting out worms into centers of dartboards carved from native banyan trunks.
“Bearing bacteria, wigglers will penetrate to the tap root and turn them into tequila trees. Then when I saddle up, sweet Chiquitas on both arms, to bars — vast planks of hand-carved and mirror-polished banyan and/or ceiba (aka pochote, the Mayan sacred tree) — minions will quiver at my potency …”
“Till you get the bill,” Zeke said. “Couldn’t you just brush your teeth?”
“What griping columns could I write then?’
“I’ve had enough,” Zeke said. Gimme a swig of yours. Ah, sweet caramel. Kills pain and bacteria briefly, then they return to form new holes in your teeth, head and billfold … Your dedication is impressive.”
“Think I’m gonna leave you a tip?”
“Best if you just leave period. Take your sob song to Mexico. How’s that wall going?”
“I got bucks, not pesos. They’ll let me in.”
“How do you get back out?”
He threw back another. “It’s hard,” he said.
“Trying to eke out a living peddling rotgut when no one tips you?”
“I’ll bring back a peso for you,” he pledged. “This time a Howler Head, Kentucky Straight …”
By Scott Sullivan